It doesn't get any better than this.
A 19 game winner.
A 17 game winner.
The best two teams in baseball.
Did I forget to mention they play in the same division?
What about the part that they are only 1/2 of a game apart for the division lead?
What about the historical significance that no two teams have had this many wins and been this neck-and-neck for a division race in MLB's 100 plus year history?
Enter the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays.
It has been an exciting season for the Rays. Their fast start. Their starting pitching.
They haven't gone away.
National pundits said they'd fade, at least a little bit. And when the Rays had their first rough stretch of the season, critics were quick to think this was the team they should be expecting.
But the problem is, the Rays haven't gone away.
Just ask the Red Sox.
If not for the Rays, the Red Sox would be contending for the AL Wild Card. Instead of setting up their post-season rotation, they are playing the "spoiler" role in late September.
And now, the Yankees and Rays start a three game series with the division on the line.
Every game matters. Every pitch matters. Every checked swing, every non-call, every managerial move will be dissected to the "nth" degree.
Post-season baseball has come early.
The Yankees and Rays have another chance to duke it out next week. In all, the Rays and Yankees play each other in 7 of the next 11 games. But which team needs to strike the first blow more? Which team has the upper hand coming into this series? Who is most likely to shine when the lights are at their brightest?
Here's a quick breakdown:
What Team Needs The Series Win The Most: Tampa Bay Rays
Both sides could really use this. The Yankees were just swept by the Texas Rangers. A series loss to the Rays could be damaging. But the truth is, the Yankees get another crack at the Rays next week. Even more, those games are at Yankee stadium.
The Rays need this series win because it will be easier to win at home, than at Yankee stadium. Sure, the Rays have the AL's best road record. But it would be much better to have that confidence going into Yankee stadium with the division lead, rather than trying to win on the road AND play catch-up.
Which Team Has the Upper Hand Coming Into This Series: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are at home, they are starting to regain their health, and currently boast the deepest team in baseball. The Yankees are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and while they have Cy Young contender CC Sabathia in Game 1, they are relying on youngster Ivan Nova for the biggest series of the season to date. Phil Hughes may have hit a late-year wall, having given up 5 ER or more in two of his last three starts. As the Yankees have also been watching his innings limit, he had his last start skipped and time will tell if he comes back rusty or refreshed.
Who Are The Potential Difference-Makers:
1) Ben Zobrist - few players have been hotter than Zobrist in the past week. He drove in two runs in each of the three games against Toronto this weekend. Six of his last seven hits have been for extra bases. Despite not showing as much power as last year, Zobrist has quietly had a productive season in other ways, ranking 5th in the AL in walks and 10th in stolen bases. If his power re-emerges for this series, the Rays may once again be unleashing "Zorilla" on the defending champs.
2) Robinson Cano - Due to the injuries to Nick Swisher and Brett Gardener, Yankees manager Joe Girardi is moving Cano up to #2 in the batting order. Will moving up Cano mess with his approach at the plate? Or will he continue to tear the cover off the ball? Cano's ability to produce at the top of the order will help their run producers do their job.
3) James Shields or James Yields - Shields has already pitched seven shutout innings against the Yankees in a previous start. But he also leads the AL in home runs allowed. Shields has been a boom or bust type of pitcher this year. Which Shields come up in the final game of this series could very well determine who takes home a 2-1 series win in this three game set.
4) Ivan Nova - It's not easy to pitch in New York and so far, this 23-year-old has more than held his own. In 4 starts, Nova has compiled a 2.92 ERA. No one is expecting a CC Sabathia-type performance, but if he can give the Yankees 5 or 6 innings of 3 ER or less, the Yankees will definitely like their chances in game two.